The first talk that I attended on Thursday was 10 Questions to Ask Every Craft Distiller as an attempt to help clarify what the term "craft" really means. Who is doing the defining? Is it the pot still? What about those blending purchased spirits? Overall it is a term of marketing, but it is important for consumers. To get to the bottom of it, moderator Wayne Curtis led a panel of Scott Blackwell (High Wire Distilling), Maggie Campbell (Privateer Rum), Christian Krogstad (House Spirits), and Brian Prewitt (A. Smith Bowman Distillers).
Wayne commented that, "Craft distilling is a remarkable art --- still pretty much alchemy. Not straw into gold, but straw in Bourbon... and that's pretty darn close." For a craft distiller to succeed, they need biology, chemistry, and legal matters on their side but also good story telling; accuracy in that story telling is becoming more and more important these days. The product does not have to be as good as the big distillers, but it has to be different since they cannot compete price-wise. Moreover, there is the problem of brands drafting behind the trend and selling expensive vodka that they merely re-bottled. Is craft meaningless without both quality and honesty?
Here are the 10 questions to ask distillers with some commentary from the panel after each:
1. How many bottles do you produce each year?
Craft brewing has capped the barrel number but they keep upping that number. Does that number include contract distillation that they do for other firms? It was also countered that Buffalo Trace could be considered a craft distiller because they do small batch products.
2. Do you make some or all of your own alcohol through fermentation?
Things started off with Krogstad commenting "I don't make alcohol, the yeast does," before the answers got serious. On one hand, the panel had pride in creating every drop of their products, or at least some of them. For gin, sourcing grain neutral spirits is rather common since making good neutral spirits is a tall order. Prewitt's company besides producing its own product will import things like Caribbean rum and blend it, but they are upfront about it especially on the labeling. Others like Campbell were proud to distill every drop.
3. How many stills do you operate and what size are they? (and what type?)
While small stills are the mark of many craft distillers, Krogstad commented that size can matter since it is harder to get accurate production cuts on small stills. The panel had 2-4 stills each with size ranging from 400-3000 gallons for all of the stills.
4. Do you buy any neutral grain spirits, and if so, what do you use them for?
Curtis commented that for gin, it makes sense, and as Krogstad explained that dry gin is about the botanicals and not the spirit. Since neutral spirits are by definition neutral, it is more in the realm of chemical engineering than craft. Here, the goal is to make ethanol -- a great blank canvas for making gin. However, the botanicals-first idea is absent in the craft vodka realm.
5. Do you buy and rebottle bulk spirits, and if so, do you have any say in the recipe or other product specification?
Campbell does not buy anything and is afraid that buying and re-bottling will get people burned out on craft spirits. Others on the panel supported the idea that just because you do not have a distillery does not mean you are not a great craftsman. Space can be rented which is different than buying product off of a shelf. Moreover, if there is honesty, there is no harm; perhaps there should be a differentiation between craft distillers and craft blenders on the label.
6. Do you have any products in limited release that use experimental ingredients or techniques?
Curtis wondered if distillers are playing around and are they curious and obsessive, or are they just cranking out cases of vodka. Craft distillers can differentiate themselves from the big guys who will not make a new product unless it is guaranteed to sell a decent amount. Prewitt added that is a great opportunity to work with local growers to plant a few acres of crops to try a new concept.
7. If you do your aging, what size barrels do you use, are they new or used, and how often do you sample from them?
The panel seemed to suggest that smaller barrels do not produce as good of a product as larger ones. Campbell added that barrel aging is the longest skill to learn along with barrel selection.
8. Do you use any additives or sweeteners in your finished products?
Curtis began by stating that the TTB allows for some classes of spirits to contain as much as 2.5%. The panel supported the concept of spirits, water, oak, and time, and let the bartender modify the spirit for sweetness. This also included not using essence, flavor,and artificial mouthfeel agents.
9. Who are the owners, and do they work at the distillery?
Prewitt works for a boss who owns a larger company, but the owner entrusts him to look out for their best interest. Being there to flip the light switch off at the end of the day is not always important.
10. Why should I buy your spirit instead of one made by a larger, more familiar brand?
Blackwell suggested curiosity and relationship building with the distiller.